Nĭ chī le ma?
Have you eaten yet?
Think of the absolute basic, every foods you have in your home in the UK. Bread. Milk. Cheese. I thought these essentials of my daily diet would be essentials elsewhere – but I was wrong.
I went months without breakfast in China before I realised that the Japanese supermarket in the city centre imported cereal; it was another few months before I found bread that was not as sweet as spoonful of sugar. Yes, we should try and adapt to cultural differences, but I just can’t bring myself to have rice, noodles and soup for breakfast.
Breakfast aside, I do love the food here.
I miss variety occasionally, but once you know what (and how) to order, you can eat all sorts. While not brave enough to eat scorpions or intestines, this fussy eater has re-trained her taste buds. Spicy Sichuan squid. Freshly fried noodles from street stalls.
Hot pot – where you boil the noodles, vegetables and meat in a bubbling soup – is my meal of choice at least once a week. And let’s not forget the dumplings. Jiaozi, baozi, fried, boiled, steamed – the list of them is endless and so is my appetite.
Street food might look scary, but it’s a safe bet it will be some of the best food you try here. Food from ‘holes in the wall’, where windows and front rooms are opened up to the world as fast food joints, tends to be tasty. The ‘chicken burger’ – fried chicken in something akin to a fried pitta bread – from a window near my apartment is a personal favourite when in a hurry.
Eating is also a social occasion.
It is very unusual for me to stay at home and eat (and no, not just because I can’t cook) because it is cheap, easy and so much more fun to eat out. We hardly ever order a dish for one – you order a few different communal dishes (dàpán), then use your chopsticks to pick and choose what to eat with your own bowl of mĭ fàn (rice). It’s a great chance to eat, drink and catch up with friends after a long day.
Then there is, of course, dessert.
Cadburys might be in short supply, but Tianjin is famous for its bakeries. Whether it’s the decades-old Kiesling bakery at Xia Bai Lou (I have a penchant for their chocolate shortbread-style treats) or the pricey cheesecake special at Black Swan in the centre of town, those of us with a sweet tooth are well catered for.
I for one am inclined to agree with an old Chinese belief that we have two stomachs: one for food, the other for sweets. What a perfect excuse to eat even more chocolate!